Monday, April 25, 2011
The "Skin" We're In
Hi Meltingpot Readers,
I hope everyone had a delightful holiday weekend. My Easter celebration became quite the multicultural experience as we ended up hosting three additional guests from Mexico. The language of the evening became a wonderful blend of Spanish and English, depending on the topic at hand. And the food was delicious.
At some point during the night we started talking about race and ethnicity in Mexico because one of our guests is often mistaken for anything but Mexican. It's because he has long, thick, unruly red hair, very pale skin with ruddy cheeks and he happens to wear a beard. As a joke, he often tells people he's Irish -- despite his strong Mexican accent -- and of course people believe him. We are so accustomed to assessing a person's ethnic/racial heritage on looks alone and yet this is such a fallible system.
It reminds me of the South African film Skin. I finally watched the film a few nights ago and was moved to tears several times throughout. The movie tells the true-life story of Sandra Laing, a South African woman who was born "looking Black" to White parents in apartheid-era South Africa. The film really explores the meaning of race as it was defined in South Africa. Before Sandra Laing, race was in fact, determined by looks. Sandra's parents wanted their daughter to attend a Whites-only school, but the school faculty deemed the little girl to be Black. With the government's help they proved she was Black by measuring her forehead, how far her buttocks stood out, and by far the most demeaning, with the official pencil test. That meant they stuck a pencil in the girl's curly hair and told her to shake her head. Because the pencil didn't fall out, she was officially declared Black.
A South African colleague of mine verified for me that the pencil test was used by all manner of official government institutions to determine a person's racial classification. Among other visual clues. Anyway, the entire film of Skin tells of Laing's tumultuous journey crossing over racial lines on paper, but never finding a place where she truly fit in. She was too Black to be White and too White to be Black. To see the real Sandra Laing in an interview with the film's director please check out the following link.
After our dinner conversation last night, watching Skin, as well as watching the Black in Latin America PBS series, I feel like I am constantly being reminded that race is such an ephemeral and useless concept. The definition of race cannot hold up to the complexity of the human experience on any continent. Every day I am more convinced that in the very near future race will cease to exist as a category of human classification. Sadly, I don't think racism will disappear with it, but it will be a start to admit that the paradigm just doesn't work. What do you think?
Will we ever see the day when we stop using race to categorize people? What do you think we'll use instead?